I push the clutch, cut the engine, and slowly coast the last fifty yards through the dim yellow of my parking lights, easing the truck through road dust that has circled up from behind me—now traveling faster than its cause—and carried by a November breeze that will stay with me all night. The dirty brakes squeak as I steer the truck into the grassy patch where I’ve parked often enough to have created the slight depression of tire tracks. Someone mows this grass, so even at the very last of a dead-end dirt road, close to midnight, I feel like an intruder.
There’s a single porch light reflecting off the water from a small house; it’s far off but directly in line with the road, and I always feel compelled to cut the headlights as I round the bend and attempt to drift into this resting place—unannounced, as much for my own madness as for a courtesy to the owner of the lightbulb across the river. There’s a secure, lit perimeter in the darkness over there—a break in the night and from whatever fears may come with it—and the happy tenant doesn’t need two distant headlights mixing with the space of his porch light and raising questions on an otherwise peaceful and ordinary evening. We all take comfort in the limits of our spaces.
I quietly push the driver’s door until it latches, closing it the way my grandfather taught me. Decades ago, while scouting for turkeys in the pre-dawn twilight, he whispered instructions to a young boy eager to understand the wisdom of his father’s father. Pap’s obsession was with a bird; mine is with a fish. Is there really any difference? We understood each other deeply, and every time I close the door like this I think of him.
This night is black—much darker than most—with a moonless, cloudy sky hiding far away stars and galaxies from lighting my part of the earth. But in just a few minutes, my eyes begin to adjust, and the known space around me widens to about as far as I can reach into the damp air. I have my own small perimeter. I tighten the laces of my wading boots, then clutch the fly rod as my field of vision grows even wider from the miracle of another type of rod—and cones and retinas of some sort. I trust my eyes to see what they should out here, keeping the red lamp relegated mostly to knot-tying duties, and I accept the darkness beyond.
You can’t use a light while night-fishing for trout. Something about the wariness of the species and all that, but it has just as much to do with them being on edge in their own space. They are jumpy. Darkness changes everything, and I think every animal feels it. The biggest brown trout (that’s why I’m out here) often take up feeding stations in shallow bank-water or thin riffles hardly deep enough to cover their broad backs. Although they’re swimming at the top of a fish-food-chain, they still have the good sense to spook when anything gets close, and maybe that’s why they grow so big in the first place. Sometimes “close” is very close; I’ve had giant trout wait until I’m just a few feet away before bursting from their position, leaving a massive splash betraying their size and sending waves of adrenaline through my veins. And I want more. Aside from catching and releasing one of these trophies, spooking them is the next best thing, and I’m hoping for either event tonight.
I silently walk a few hundred slow yards through the shadows and the trees, bringing with me the moving circumference of space that is mine—or just to the edge of what I can see on this dark night. I navigate the familiar, lean path (first formed by a cautious deer and clumsily widened by a fisherman’s footsteps), then veer to the right and start the descent. My unavoidable scramble down the steep, brushy hillside sounds like a siren, and I feel the alert of my unnatural presence going out to every nearby creature—living out their own space in the dark. Pausing at the water’s edge, I collect my thoughts and whatever circumstances I can glean about my new space. And then I walk into the water.
Night fishing takes a special kind of crazy if you’re going to last very long. You need the stealth of a predator and a knack for warding off the ominous feeling of being the prey. The eerie unease which creeps in as daylight fades can only be pushed back with the confidence of experience (or ignorance), and with a comfortable acceptance of the smaller perimeter.
The truth is, there is little to fear in the woods or the water at night. Do you want to know what’s out here in the dark after midnight? Nothing. Seriously, it’s startling how much nothing is going on. Maybe that’s what part of our instinctual fear of the dark is—fear of nothing existing in those smaller known spaces and trying not to be too claustrophobic about it.
I walk upstream, tossing large black craft projects of feathers and fur, far out into the dark, well past the border of what I can see. The known space is wider now that I’m in open water; with no trees, branches or leaves darkening the shadows, and with the water reflecting the available light, I can see further than I could in the woods, and the water feels … safer. My eyes eventually adjust, and my perimeter is as wide as it will ever be on this darkest of nights. But I also have other senses by which to navigate: the sounds of the water disclose more about my location than the muted forest, and after about a couple hours of slowly stepping, then casting—and stepping, then casting—I can hear that I’m directly across from my favorite run—the reason I’m here. The heavy current washes away any silence left in the night as I move through and push against the forceful, cold water. I’m waist deep, bracing each footstep before taking the next and trying to get to the soft seam on the other side.
It’s the perfect spot for a predator trout: a school-bus size bucket of swirling water trapped between the heavy chute and a rocky, woody bank; it’s deep enough for daylight hiding, and shallow enough for nighttime feeding. I’m just above it now. Crouching to angle my cast under tree limbs that I can’t see, I pause to take a drink from my water bottle, and I have a moment of awareness: I’m alone as I could ever be, well past midnight, in the dark, at a prime spot on a favorite river, with a chance for a legendary wild brown trout right in front of me. So I cast …
Like so much of the dark space around me, nothing at all happens in this perfect water. After an hour of casting from every possible angle, and retrieving, drifting, swinging and stripping, I allow myself to understand that this is another night where the line will not tighten with the surge of a fish at the end. It’s been about a four hour adventure, and for the first time I think about tomorrow, so I walk out.
I’m a half-mile upstream from where I scrambled down the river bank, and it’s only a few hundred more yards upstream through riffles and shallow bank-water to the truck. I’m casting into the water ahead of me now but moving quickly. My vigor for tonight’s event is gone, and I’m really only halfheartedly filling in the moments between steps with hopeful casts that I doubt will produce. As a night fisherman, I’ve built a high tolerance for failure, redefining success by finding some novel value in bumbling through the dark, because on many most nights I’m dumbfounded by how fish-less this water seems to be. But I come back for the mystery, for the private solitude, and because I know what swims in this river. And because, once in awhile, it happens.
About twenty minutes more of stepping and casting, then I smell the familiar muddy bank, and the space that I’ve been imagining grows clearer in my mind. It’s a flat, wide bank where waves wash up like ocean tides often enough to keep it open, and the scent of wet earth, crayfish parts and nymph shucks combine with the rest of my senses to fill in the visual blanks about where I am in this dark space. In the summer, the whole night would have been alive with the smell of wild lilac and dewy spruce, but on this cold, early-winter night, I mostly smell a dull, unremarkable dampness. It’ll be that way until the temperature drops below freezing; then the air will dry up and take on the familiar, crisp, woody scent that will hang in my vest and in my memory for days.
I step into the sandy mud leaving only imagined footprints behind me in the dark. Then, through the tall grass, I see the shiny, mirrored reflections of my truck.
As I drive through the sound of rubber on dirt and small gravel, I notice from across the river that the porchlight is off. When my tires are pointed away, I flip on the headlights.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N